ESN continues its series of interviews with authors of Faithful Is Successful. Bryan McGraw is associate professor politics at Wheaton College. He has taught previously at the University of Georgia, Notre Dame and Pepperdine University. His first book, Faith in Politics: Religion and Liberal Democracy, was published by Cambridge University Press, and he is beginning a project on pluralism, law and religion, and political theology. He earned an AM in political science from Brown University, an MA in Russian area studies from Georgetown, and his PhD in political science from Harvard University. Bryan and his wife, Martha, a practicing neurologist, live in Wheaton with their three children. They enjoy gardening, all manners of outdoor activities, and perfecting the art of pulled-pork BBQ sandwiches.
1. ESN: One of the pleasures of this essay is hearing about the books that are important to you (such as Augustine’s Confessions). Would you share with us a few books you’re currently recommending to political science graduate students and others curious about engaging thoughtfully with political theory?
Bryan: Ah, so many choices—how do I narrow this down to a reasonable list? Aside from the canon of western political thought (to which they’ve hopefully already been introduced!), these books have been especially striking to me of late: Steven Smith’s The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom, Nicholas Wolterstorff’s recent political theory books (Justice, Understanding Liberal Democracy, and The Mighty and Almighty), Nigel Biggar’s Defence of War, Andy Crouch’s Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, Cormac MacCarthy’s novels, and anything by Oliver O’Donovan.
2. ESN: In your essay, you talk about how you went to college to become a spy, and you wound up teaching political science at Wheaton instead. That’s quite a career switch, as you mention. For those of our readers who are in the middle of career transitions at the moment, what would you say to them?
Bryan: It was quite a switch and it wasn’t one that I had a fully worked out plan for. I was in the Army, and decided to get out and go back to graduate school. My wife wanted to go to New England for her residency (she’s a neurologist) and so I applied everywhere within reasonable shouting distance. I thought that academia was what I wanted to do, but I tried to keep a relatively loose hold on that. I didn’t know, after all, if I’d get into graduate school or get money or, really, if I’d even be very good at it. (I’m still worried about the last part, by the way). I was not, in other words, probably nearly as intentional as I could (or should) have been. But I think that turned out to be a virtue in the end because the truth is that very few of us actually end up doing precisely what we thought we’d be doing, even if we had a clear vision at the outset.
I was at a similar point at the end of my grad school career, when I found myself deeply frustrated at my lack of success on the job market. I began to wonder if I would ever get a tenure-track job and so began to think about what else I might do. I thought about opening a classical Christian school or just rehabbing old houses and teaching/writing on the side. (I’m pretty handy with a chop saw and nail gun). A lot of people are finding themselves in this position these days—or worse—and my advice, I guess, is to not hold too tightly to what you think you should be doing. That is not an easy thing for me to write and having to make rather radical changes in career directions is often very wrenching, but sometimes that’s what we have to do.
3. ESN: How has working on this essay deepened your own understanding of what it means to be faithful in your vocation as a Christian and a scholar?
Bryan: Because, of course, life and work is rather busy, we don’t often take time to reflect on where we are, how we got here, and where we’re going. This is especially true for me, as I’m not a naturally self-reflective person—thinking too much about myself comes to feel dangerously close to narcissism (or just navel gazing). But writing the essay gave me a chance to think about how being at Wheaton has (or hasn’t) changed my sense of vocation as a Christian political theorist. In particular, it made my synthesize more clearly something I had already intuitively come to recognize, namely that what I’m doing here is quite different than what I’d planned to do with my career but that it was ok, or maybe even better than what I’d planned.
I suppose I thought that my primary “audience” was some large swathe of academic and public readers who were interested in the same issues I am. I still hope I write for some of these people, but my experience at Wheaton has taught me that my primary audience are those 18-22 year olds who sit in front of me every day. Sometimes I worry that I’ve just “settled” but I then just ask myself, “As opposed to what?” Helping shape young minds never makes for a lot of prestige, but I’m fairly certain that there’s precious little in Scripture about getting famous. About helping make disciples, on the other hand, we hear a bit more.
4. ESN: How do you hope your essay will encourage our readers as they live out their callings to follow Christ in the academy?
Bryan: I’d say I hope it does two things. First, I hope it encourages them. We get a certain narrative in graduate school about what a successful academic career looks like, and it seems entirely plausible, even expected. But of course it looks that way because the people offering the narrative are the ones—tenured faculty at top research institutions—who have trod the successful path. But that’s not everyone’s path and we should recognize that the sort of model offered in those institutions actually represents just a slice of what an academic calling can be.
Second, I hope it offers them a way of thinking about their vocation that doesn’t require clear vision. It’s so rare to have that clear vision. So many of our decisions are made in the muddle of incomplete information, conflicting desires, and—perhaps most of all—a lack of control. We are almost never entirely in charge of what we “decide” to do. So muddle through—that’s what most everyone else is doing as well (even if they don’t admit it).
5. ESN: Is there anything else you’d like to say to emerging Christian academics?
Bryan: Be not afraid. The most serious error I’ve made as an academic was one born of fear. There are plenty of good reasons to be anxious about being an academic, but it’s a mistake to make a decision out of fear. Doing so points you away from thinking about your vocation and its place in God’s Kingdom and is all too often deeply destructive. What’s more, it can become a habit. Indeed, I would say that it is the habit I struggle with more than any other as an academic—and I’m stably and suitably employed! Acting out of fear trains you to be fearful.